ATLANTA, Ga. (AP)—Nick Saban may face his toughest task yet: Holding down runaway expectations for his inexperienced Alabama team.
Crimson Tide’s $4 million-per-year coach gave Alabama backers a reason to think big Saturday night, leading ‘Bama to thorough 34-10 beating of No. 9 Clemson 34-10 at the Georgia Dome.
“Nobody can be satisfied with a one-game performance,” Saban said. “This will be a challenge for our team and it’ll be interesting to see how they respond.”
Still, as the Alabama band broke into Queen’s “We Are The Champions,” at the end, you had to wonder if they were honoring the Crimson Tide’s past, with 12 national titles and years of dominance in the Southeastern Conference under Bear Bryant, or gazing into the near future.
“It’s still early. We still got a long way to go,” cautioned quarterback John Parker Wilson, who threw for two touchdowns and ran for a third. “But we’ve got a good group of guys here who can do it.”
Especially if the Tide play like this.
Alabama’s defense held Clemson to zero rushing yards to help bat a top-10 opponent for the first time since topping No. 5 Florida in 2005. That was part of the last hurrah for former coach Mike Shula, who followed that 10-2 season with a 6-7 campaign that ended his time with the Tide.
Alabama lured Saban from the NFL last season to lead the 12-time national champs back to glory. Based on the opener, Saban and the Tide are on their way.
Saban hopes his players understand how far they have to go.
Wilson finished 22-of-30 for 180 yards and, with his career total completions now at 500, surpassed Brodie Croyle’s old record of 488.
“I think we got something special here,” Wilson said.
The Crimson Tide defense held the Tigers’ heralded “Thunder and Lightning” backfield of James Davis and C.J. Spiller to 20 yards combined.
The Tigers managed only 188 yards, way off their 403-yard average from last season.
Saban’s latest recruiting class included such high-profile prospects as receiver Julio Jones, an Internet sensation who fans have buzzed about for months. Still, Alabama didn’t figure to hang with the Tigers, an experienced bunch who entered the season with higher hopes than just their first Atlantic Coast Conference championship in 17 years.
Right from the start, though, Alabama showed it matched up fine with the ACC’s favorite.
The Tide ran the ball easily on Clemson’s defense, which was ninth in the country a season ago. At one point, Alabama had outgained the Tigers 114-1. By the time, tight end Nick Walker had slipped behind three defenders for a 4-yard TD catch, Alabama was ahead 20-3 midway through the second quarter.
Just for good measure, Jones collected his first college TD pass, a 4-yarder from Wilson that put Alabama up 31-10.
Leigh Tiffin added four field goals, including a 54-yard kick that was Alabama’s third longest of all time.
Clemson quarterback Cullen Harper, voted the favorite to win ACC player of the year, was continually pressured and off target throughout.
The Tigers, down 23-3 at the half, got a burst of life when Spiller broke for a 96-yard kickoff return TD to start the second half, then forced the Tide into their first punt of the night a series later.
Clemson, though, could get little going.
“Maybe we needed a wake up call,” Harper said. “We’ll have to keep working hard this week and correct our mistakes.”
So, for the second time in eight months, left the Georgia Dome with more questions and answers.
“We can’t hang our heads down now,” Clemson’s Davis said.
That could be difficult since the Tigers just can’t help but stumble whenever they close in on success.
They lost to a lightly regarded Maryland in 2006 at home, 13-12, when victory would’ve sent Clemson to the ACC title game.
Then last year, the Tigers were beaten 20-17 by Boston College in a showdown for a spot in the league’s championship game.
Clemson concluded the season with a 23-20 overtime loss to Auburn in the Chick-fil-A Bowl, missing out on its first 10-victory season since 1991.
This was the year, many thought, that Clemson and embattled coach Tommy Bowden would shake off their reputations for not winning the biggest games. Alabama was where it was supposed to start.
Instead, Bowden again must refocus a team filled with veterans and leaders running out of time.
“We were whipped pretty bad,” Bowden said.
Clemson’s loss also concluded a demoralizing day for the ACC. Earlier, defending league champion Virginia Tech fell to East Carolina, while Virginia was defeated at home by No. 3 Southern Cal 52-7.
The Crimson Tide have won 12 straight against Clemson, although the team’s hadn’t met since 1975 when the late Bryant laid a 56-0 humiliation on the Tigers.
Maybe Alabama and Saban will soon have more in common with the Bear’s championship teams.